Finished! Coryphodons rumaging around the Eocene

Misbehaving Photoshop filters couldn’t stop me finishing! I finally finished it, and I am happy how it came out. It is large, made to be printed out at least 48 inches across, but the detail could hold up a lot larger…I have to print one myself to see how it looks on a format other than a computer screen. Otherwise if you want to see it in action, go to Western Washington University’s Environmental Studies building.
I shot screenshot timelapse video of the whole creation, including the modeling of the clay so hopefully I can get that video together soon. Until then, let me know what you think. Depicted are the creators of trackways found at the Racehorse Creek landslide that inhabited the low lying tropical estuary ~50 million years ago. There are prehistoric analogues of modern Herons, and Willets, and of course the group of Coryphodons- today we have nothing similar or even distantly related. They were fascinating creatures that had perhaps the smallest known brain to body ratio of any mammal. Do you think I created them in a believable rendering? As the artist, I chose all of the non-skeletal features such as hair, color, ears, snout shape, habitus, etc. Large responsibilities for someone who never saw them in real life!
Here are a couple wikipedia links of Coryphodons and the Eocene.

Modeling Coryphodons with take’n’bake clay

I thought that to get the light and anatomy best on a new paleo-reconstruction of the Eocene, I should start something I have been meaning to do since forever and ever…sculpting!  Yes, I could get by without it, but why?  Sculpting is so much fun!  I will use better tools and firmer clay next time, but as a first attempt, it went fine.

This semi-aquatic creature is not even a close ancestor of hippos and stands alone in earth history as having one of the smallest brain to body ratios of any mammal: ~90 gram brain vs. a 500 kg body!  It mired in swamps using its big teeth to drudge up aquatic plants…perhaps an uncomplicated task?

I used a wooden egg from a hobby store and wire and threaded inserts to reinforce it…the clay wanted to droop off the egg a bit.  I also screwed it to a tripod swivel base that I bolted to my easel and could manipulate in all directions at will.  I made a 3 wire neck that allows the head to be turned too.  It will be such a luxury to use as a reference for my shadows and highlights…here is a photo:

Direct from Miocene: the cavity of the Blue Lake Rhino

Here is a little text and an upcoming sketch from my proposal for the Dry Falls visitor center:
(the gist is- “…YOU NEED A PROPER PAINTING OF THE RHINO GETTING EMBALMED IN LAVA!”)

This image is a collage of both the digital mock-up and a stripe of the partial opacity pencil sketch I worked from:

As a frequent and dedicated visitor to interpretive displays and natural history museums all over the world, I have noticed that some of the displays at Dry Falls are particularly worn down and dated.  For a site of its grandeur, I feel that some of the magic and wonder of the area could be better interpreted by newer and better illustrations- particularly the Blue Lake Rhino.  Besides the fact that many visitors cannot access the amazing site on Blue Lake, I feel many tourists coming to the interpretive center fail to understand the amazing circumstances that lead to this incredible phenomenon.  Ultimately, the visual narrative of the Blue Lake rhino is a perfect tool to use in understanding the volcanic geology of the region as it relates to the floods.

I propose to create a series of large illustrations depicting the chronological process of the Blue Lake rhino’s unique preservation. With large eye-catching paintings, the rhino’s embalming in lava is a fascinating story that clearly explains how different the world was when rhinos grazed and smothering lava flows swept across the landscape.  An introduction to columnar basalt using the Blue Lake rhino sets the stage for understanding the role erosion played in the cliffs that the viewers see at Dry Falls today.

Creodonts of the Chuckanuts…as told by a Tapir Toddler

I am finished with my paleo painting!  It was quite the diabolical time sink, but I am quite pleased with how it came out.  I have painted many discrete subjects over the years, but creating a fully rendered environment in and around a given creature is a full-on leap in complexity and dimensions.  Gotta “cut your teeth” on a project of this magnitude at some point…might as well be when you should be packing to leave for Sulawesi and have no time anyway.

I worked on this digital painting in ways that I never could on a traditional (i.e. gouache or acrylic) painting.  For example, I painted all the characters first, and created the background around them.  What are perhaps my favorite benefits of pushing pixels on a monitor- rather than traditional art- are the endless ways to manipulate specific layers.  One has the ability to work on a background behind the foreground, play with the nuances of opacity (so awesome), and pick the perfect color immediately.  But perhaps most valuable of all is being able to experiment in a direction for a time, to realize it isn’t going how I want, so I can delete what I did or backtrack and continue in another direction.  These 4 aspects are invaluable.

What I lose in doing a digital piece are the tiny little accidents of color and form that happen in traditional painting.   And perhaps better posture?  I became a hunched vulture laboring over my wacom tablet.  Click these words to check out another painting I did of a: Diatryma in the Chuckanuts This was entirely acrylic paint so you can contrast these two pieces.  What do you prefer about each?

I tried very hard to turn the whole process into a video, but sadly it wasn’t to be:  I was unable to find the right automated screenshot recording software (anyone know what I can use?).   While I was squandering my time researching software instead of painting, the videos I had used in the beginning were really poor resolution and I gave up.  But I had the idea to make each flattened layer a different frame of a time lapse video, so stacking all them together will be an upcoming project.

I loved thinking about this incredible time to be on the planet.  Washington in the tropics teeming with tapirs, creodonts, and giant flightless birds- wickedly sweet!  The creatures that evolved to fill the Cenozoic vacuum left by demise of the dinosaurs are endless daydream fodder for me.  If anyone knows anyone with a time travel device, we need to talk.

Please let me know what you think!   Enjoy!

herbivorous Diatryma eating palm fruits in the Eocene (56 mya)

This incredible beast of a bird ambled around North America during the Eocene.  I was so happy to be commissioned to illustrate this bird in its paleoenvironment, especially since I was given the challenge to display features that hadn’t really been illustrated before.

The impetus for this was that in Whatcom county in 2009, there was a large landslide that revealed sandstone slabs from the Eocene.  Incredibly, this was the first time that tracks of a Diatryma had been revealed to us through geologic time!  There have been many fossils uncovered, but what amazing new angle that these tracks showed paleontologists was that this lumbering giant’s “talons” left no mark in the soft sand as it passed by that day 56 million years ago.   What does this mean?  It suggests that the bird indeed had reduced claws.  What does that mean?  Being that this fossil lacked a hooked beak, (as almost all living birds of prey that hunt or scavenge have), and the fact that its claws didn’t depress in the soft sand lead many to believe that it is further confirmation it was a peaceful foliverous/frugivorous/vegetarian animal.  (Admit it, you viscerally want a 7 foot tall bird to be a terrifying carnivore….admit it!)

With the closing of the Mesozioc and the death of all of the beautiful dinosaurs, there was a huge void left in lifestyle niches that were wide open to exploit for whatever animals made it through the extinction.  Filling this was our fair Diatryma that stood at a mighty 7 feet tall, and weighed perhaps 400 pounds.  What is very striking is the massive scale of its head.  It seems vastly overbuilt for the purposes of clipping vegetation but between perhaps cracking really hard things and sexual selection, it sported a beak that was about a foot long, very tall, and very thick.  Compare that with any other bird head/beak living or extinct- the elephant bird of Madagascar, moas, cassowaries, ostriches…their heads and beaks are all much smaller even if the birds themselves are larger or taller.

Even with all the data we have distilled about this animal and its habitat, I was still left with many decisions to make.  What kind of plumage?  more like an ostrich or a kiwi or a rail?  What colors would the plumage have?  Should it carry up its neck and cover its head?  How many chicks?  What setting should they be in?

I did a lot of research on the many anatomical and other details I needed to resolve before starting, but it was a exhilirating project that I hope to do many more of.  I love extinct animals, the early Cenezoic, Braeburn apples, and fossil reconstruction….3 out of 4 isn’t bad!

I did many sketches of the angles I could show it from, but in the end chose one, transferred to my canvas, then got cracking on the painting.  I used all acrylic paint, and may even take it a little further digitally.  I also set up a web cam for time lapse video capture!  Soon when I have some more time to learn the editing software, I will be able to post a 2ish minute movie of the whole process.  I can’t wait!

Let me know any questions you have about the process, what you like or what you feel should be different….in fossil reconstruction no-one is 100% right!